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[Article] – Movie Villains…

 

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Posted September 25, 2016 by

 
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I’m not sure exactly what this says about me but I often find myself rooting for the bad guy. It’s normally a certainty that the good guy is going to win but I find it so much more satisfying when the villain has a proper go of it first. In most action films (superhero, cop, spy), the villain can make or break the whole thing, and sadly there are so many examples of this going wrong.

One of the reasons I enjoyed The Dark Knight so much is that The Joker kept ramping up his plan to the point where you wonder whether Batman was going to win at all. Likewise in The Dark Knight Rises; the scene where Bane decimates Batman without breaking a sweat is one of the most exhilarating in the whole series. The reason being that it ups the drama, makes you think that it’s impossible for the hero to win, adding suspense to the heady mix of explosions and fisticuffs.

But being harder than the hero isn’t enough. There’s one factor that sets aside the really great villains from the forgettable foes, the Lokis from the Venoms: charisma. This elusive element comes down to an alchemic mix of casting and writing and there’s a far greater rate of failure than there is success.

Some of the best villains in film history come down to casting. Robert Mitchum’s murderous preacher from Night Of The Hunter is one of the greats. Mitchum brings a chilling reality to the part. An imposing physical presence, walking a tightrope between strictly moral preacher and a man who would kill children for money. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a caricature. The casting of Henry Fonda as Western uber-villain Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West was perfect; traditionally a good guy, Fonda’s baby blues brought an icy intensity to add to the surprise of seeing the man from 12 Angry Men shoot kids and hang people.

The quintessential villain of my lifetime if probably Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Refined, eloquent, well-dressed, and with delusions of grandeur hiding the fact that he’s just an “exceptional thief” (moving up to kidnapping…), he’s the polar opposite of Bruce Willis’ rugged American hero. He’s not a screeching maniac, he doesn’t lose his cool or needlessly monologue, and he actually has motivation (essentially just money, but he admits it). His character is so well written, so quotable, it’s almost a shame when he plummets to his death.

One of the best places to look for cinematic villainy is the Bond series, and some of the best examples of 007’s foes are when they’ve put him up against an anti-Bond. The equal-and-opposite approach has served the series well with Sean Bean’s former 00 agent in Goldeneye, and Javier Bardem’s embittered former spy from Skyfall. Compare, if you will, to the likes of Mathiu Amalric’s weak Dominic Greene (Quantum Of Solace) or Toby Stephens’ posturing, OTT Gustav Graves (Die Another Day) and see the dulling effect an inferior villain has on the drama.

Of course, Bond films have a tradition of the ‘throw a giant henchman at him’ school of thought, and with mixed results: most memorable (for the wrong reasons) is Richard Kiel’s Jaws, who was more comic than threatening but fit the lighter tone of his two films. Better is Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, who comes alarmingly close to killing Bond in From Russia With Love. The most recent entry was the dull Mr. Hinx, whose greatest crime is not giving Dave Bautista enough to do, although his death is the best nod to Jaws I’ve seen in a film since Clerks’ salsa sharks…

The ‘equal and opposite’ approach to arch bastards often falls flat on its face when it comes to superhero films. I firmly believe that we won’t ever see a great film made from characters like Wolverine or Hulk because they’re almost impossible to threaten. Villainous opposites like Lady Deathstrike and Abomination have been used but neither particularly well. The last Wolverine film’s villains were so forgettable that I had to look up who they were for this article, and no threat equals no drama. For further examples, see the villains from Iron Man and Iron Man 2, which offered little imagination and simply placed lunatics in bigger exoskeletons than Stark’s. As maligned as the Mandarin storyline was, Guy Pearce’s charismatic Aldrich Killian has been Stark’s best villain so far. I quite liked what Marvel tried to do with Ultron; he was funny and had motivation but he was ultimately too louche to be threatening and his powers were toned down too much.

While Marvel has wasted several decent villains (Apocalypse, Dr. Doom, Red Skull, Malekith, Ronan The Accuser) under layers of heavy prosthetics without scripts to match, D.C. have been the bigger offenders since Catwoman took care of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. While Michael Shannon is a fine actor his naturally moody and introspective air did not suit General Zod, who needed to be noble and authoritative and instead was reduced to shouting and punching.

Worse still was Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Caveats. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is destined to go down in cinema history as Marmite Man: a creepy, twitchy genius to some; an irritating series of tics to others. Supposed to be a Machiavellian maniac, he has fuzzy motives and a supreme lack of threat. The biggest crime, however, is Doomsday. Any comic book fan with a passing knowledge of Superman history will know what Doomsday does, but to be introduced with almost no build up, no establishment of threat, and to be given no character is a criminal waste of source material. Likewise Suicide Squad, whose villain is a dancing supermodel, commanding legions of faceless goons who are either impervious to bullets or really easy to kill, depending on who is shooting at them, and a huge unexplained CGI swirl.

So who has got this right recently? Certainly Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki is brilliant, balancing purpose and malevolence. Robert Redford’s shady HYDRA mole in The Winter Soldier is great, but then Redford couldn’t be uncharismatic if he tried. Of the recent Bond films, Skyfall is easily the best and much of this is down to Bardem’s baddie. Christoph Waltz’ interpretation of Blofeld in Spectre is strong in a weaker film, bringing poise and motivation to a classic and much parodied villain. Special mention should also go to Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock series, who was in many ways more likeable than the hero, despite being thoroughly evil.

One of the main strengths of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is the villains; by turns charismatic and terrifying, they both offer tangible threat for the hero to defeat while also being, by villainous standards, really quite likeable or sympathetic. Compare Tommy Lee Jones’ clownish Two Face in Batman Forever to Aaron Eckhart’s tortured, driven-to-mania version for evidence.

The common thread here is that a good villain will be one that a dark part of you will quite like; one whose plan is suitably dastardly, and whose performance is more than just a CGI superpower or a series of tics. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winfield, personality goes a long way and bearing that in mind, it possibly doesn’t seem too bad that I always want a great villain to do well. Possibly…

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Adam Laffey
@AdamateurCritic
Blog – Adamature Critic
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